Song Series #14: One Morning in May

This morning I had the joy of listening to songs with my ninth-grade students, as part of the music unit in the American Civilization course. A few weeks ago, while we were still online, I had introduced them to U.S. American and Canadian songs and pieces from various genres: jazz, blues, folk, country. They then had to choose one of the songs from the playlist and write a reflection on it. From their reflections and songs, I chose five, and added one more (which isn’t American but which is clearly influenced by these traditions, particularly folk): Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights.” So here was what we listened to, in person, this morning in May.

First was the remastered version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Mirrors,” which an eleventh-grade student had strongly recommended to me. I listened to it and understood why he thought I should hear it. A person could listen to this piece alone and fall in love with jazz. One ninth-grader wrote, “In the first second when I heard the jazzy piano, I knew
that this song was going to be good. The wind instruments are played like they are the singers I’m a fan of. It is really calm and smooth.” Another mentioned that he might include a sample from this piece in one of his own musical projects.


The next one was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which I have brought up on this blog before. While Cohen was Jewish and observant, as well as being involved with Buddhism, the verse that describes Jesus is heartbreaking. That is part of the song’s opennness; Suzanne in the song carries the spirit of openness, the ability to feel with the world and to love with a purity that sweeps up everything.

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And then you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind

The next was “Little Red Rooster” by the great blues musician Howlin’ Wolf. A student found it intriguing because nowadays teens don’t listen to this kind of music. “I noticed his beautiul energetic voice,” he wrote, “which is incredible.” He gave some brief background on Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett), his teenage life on a cotton plantation, and his musical evolution.

The next one was Sarah Jarosz’s “Song Up In Her Head,” this version recorded during the Music Fog sessions at the 2010 Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. The students who had written about this song had been taken by her voice and the way the song gets you to sing along. “I personally think that the lyrics are catchy,” one wrote; “they are easy to memorize. After listening to the song two or three times, you can already sing along easily. There aren’t many too high or too low notes, because the focus is more on the instruments, as the genre is bluegrass.”

From there, we moved along to Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” which had appealed to several of the students. The song has layers and layers of memories for me. I love the languourous mood, the characteristic soaring of the voice, and the way the song tells a story and then, in the last verse, moves into the first person.

People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin
But I lost the ring
She was born in spring
But I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate

To wrap it all up, we listened to Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights,” which they hadn’t heard before. I chose it because it is gorgeous and because it fit so well with the rest; also, because they could hear how a Hungarian band draws on U.S. folk traditions in a genuine and original way. The music wraps you up and carries you along; you can hear and see the orange nights in Pest. The lyrics are full of textures and meanings. One of my favorite aspects is the rhyme of “Pest” (“pesht”) with “detest,” “rest,” “best,” and “chest”; another is the pair of lines “Solitude, you’re with me in the end / We salute as old friends,” with “salute” pronounced with a stress on the first syllable, so that it sounds very close to “solitude” and brings out this beautiful paradox of solitude and greeting. No native English speaker would come up with this, and it’s perfect; the song, after you listen to it a few times, starts playing in the mind and limbs.

What a happy lesson, and a rare treat at school: to be able to listen to songs like this, one after another. The students were tranquil and thoughtful, and several commented at the end that they had enjoyed this. One of them doesn’t like slow songs, so it wasn’t quite as enjoyable for her; but others were strongly enthusiastic (one especially loved “Orange Nights”), and in any case, this is an opening into more: for instance, the full albums, or these same songs again, or something else. Who knows where listening will lead?

To see all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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